MMORGPs take months or even years to reach their final version and full potential. The following is based on some initial impressions and perhaps 15-20 hours of gameplay.
How do you like your MMORPGs? Fantasy-flavored? Historical? Sci-fi themed? Do you want to fight and explore solo or do you enjoy grouping with others? Perhaps you relish the role-playing or crafting aspects of the game. Do you prefer the hard-core, old-school approach to in-game death, where defeat means the loss of hard-won experience, or do you want to be babied and play in a world where death is virtually no punishment at all?
Whatever your preferences and "ideal" MMO, there is probably a game for you in the estimated three thousand titles currently live, in beta, or in development. Into the already overcrowded field comes Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, from developer Sigil and publisher Sony. Sired by many of the same creators of the original Everquest, and over five years in development, Vanguard is simultaneously a step back to some first-gen conventions while incorporating many of the more successful innovations of recent titles like World of Warcraft.
Vanguard is perhaps the deepest, richest, most complex, and potentially most satisfying MMO available right now, but it is not for the casual player and it is not easy. Only weeks into retail release, it has had its share of birthing pains, bugs, and holes, but we should have learned by now that all MMOs (especially ones that weigh in at more than 17GB!) need some time to settle; provided the game runs reasonably well and its feature set is available, I'm more than willing to cut the developers a little slack.
I should also mention right now that despite widespread complaints that the game doesn't run well on mid-range or older systems, my 2.4P4, Radeon X800, 2Gb RAM system handles it pretty well, with hiccups primarily in populated areas (as might be expected). The balanced setting between performance and quality seems to be a good compromise, and the graphics, art design, and environments are awe-inspiring (more on that below). The widely varying nature of un-standardized PCs means that, unless you have a really high-end rig, whether or not Vanguard runs well for you may be a crapshoot.
Story, Character Creation and Gameplay
In many MMOs, the backstory of the game is set in motion by a series of cataclysmic events that set up the ensuing rivalries and factions. This doesn't seem to be the case in Vanguard; instead, there is a lot of room for faction and racial relationships to develop over time and for the players to (hopefully) create a shared history. There are three nations, whose cultures are very loosely based on Celtic/Norse, Asian, and Middle Eastern environments and design elements, each with a starting island. As with many games, quests and missions send the player on an ever-widening arc of exploration that finally ends with forays to the other islands. The game delivers nothing in the way of cinematics or cutscenes to place the player in a context; there are plenty of clues into the backstory during missions and quests, but the initial "why am I here?" question never gets answered.
Each nation has subpopulations of humans, elves, dwarfs, and animal-human hybrids, and there are fifteen professions covering the usual gamut of fighters, mages, and healers. I was a little disappointed that Vanguard stuck so closely to the high-fantasy canon in this regard, until I reminded myself that in no way does Vanguard attempt to re-define the MMO genre as much as create the richest possible iteration of tried-and-true archetypes. Even though one may be dealing with stock fantasy types, the game's combat, spells, and fighting moves are all interesting and one can chain spell types to create special, lethal combos.
The character creation process doesn't break any new ground, falling somewhere short of Oblivion-like richness but far exceeding World of Warcraft's rudimentary system. In a game with so much depth in other areas, this aspect could have benefitted from more options.
The level grind is so much a part of current MMOs that the question is not if there is a grind, but how it is handled and whether it is fun to work your way up. As expected, completing quests is by far the quickest way of earning XP, but leveling in Vanguard is a relatively slow process even at the lower levels. Beginning at level seven, the death penalty sets in, and players will need to trek, sometimes over very long distances and often through hostile territory, to visit their grave and recover experience and lost items. While armor and weapons can be soulbound to the player and not lost, all other non-bound items are lost upon death, including all quest items and crafting supplies. Players used to the relatively mild death penalties of other MMOs will find this harsh; I do, too, although it certainly adds an element of risk to combat. At least the player can never lose an entire level. Another design decision (and one that irked many players of Dungeons and Dragons Online) is that it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to solo this game with any success, at least past the first handful of levels. Because there are no instances, and monster respawn rates are often very rapid, it is almost always necssary to have others around to watch your back.
Players who are less interested in combat than in earning experience via diplomacy or crafting will find unique and interesting approaches to both. Diplomacy is handled through a card-game system and is an art unto itself; crafting is a multi-stage process that will require a number of raw materials, specialized tools, and acquisition of recipes and much practice. One thing that makes Vanguard such a demanding and potentially rewarding MMO is that it practically insists the player becomes experienced in all aspects of the gameworld in order to advance.
Graphics, Design, and Sound
The world of Telon feels like a real place, with varied landscapes and topography that have a real-world sense of scale. Vistas are immense and truly awe-inspiring with a lot of detail in the textures. The day and night cycle is lengthy and transitions are handled beautifully. I have been disappointed that I haven't seen much in the way of weather effects. This pulls a little of the reaslism out of the world. The design of buildings ranges from serviceable to masterful, with richly detailed flouishes and textures. In short, I find the look and design of this game to be truly outstanding. While the game never stops to load new zones, it does pause now and then to add content.
I would like to report that in Vanguard, you never spend your lower levels fighting giant spiders, scorpions, wolves, and drudges. Alas, the standbys of newb decimation are all here, though all rendered beautifully and with a lot of detail, thanks to the Unreal 3 engine. (I wince to think of the legions of puppies, wolves, bear cubs, and other fuzzy critters I have dispatched in these kinds of games.)
However, although the creatures do seem to have at least a moderately logical relation to the environment, in no case is there any AI on display more complex than "attack" though humanoid creatures will sometimes flee in the later stages of losing a battle. The day may yet come when NPCs exhibit something close to the AI found in the latest shooters, and when it does, the worlds will become that much more convincing.
Vanguard's musical score is varied and appropriate but perhaps too omnipresent; just because you can have music doesn't mean you should. Music used sparingly, for dramatic or emotional impact, is much more effective than the Muzak-like unrelenting accompaniment that joins the player every moment of the game. Voice acting, which is rather sparingly used, ranges from the mediocre to the abysmal and sadly sounds quite amateurish. On the positive side, ambient sound is well done with different types of reverb or filters used to simulate spaces like caverns or stone environments.
Vanguard's dialogue, like that of virtually every MMORPG, is unremarkable and lacks even a moderate amount of poetry or beauty. It is serviceable. It communicates instructions but never in such a way that the player is compelled to care much about what is being said. Vanguard is no worse about this than most games in the genre, but when developers spend tens of millions creating an immersive experience, why not budget a bit for a really talented writer?
Perhaps because the community is still relatively sparse, my experience with other Vanguard players has been entirely positive. Players seem polite, helpful, and there has been little spamming of the chat channels with meaningless drivel, profanity, or commercial ploys. My experiences with ad hoc groups have been great, though groups aren't always easy to find due lack of players in some areas and on some servers. As of two weeks into launch, most high level players were only in the upper twenties (out of fifty).
My experience with Vanguard has been with low-level content so far, but it has certainly impressed me in many ways: Beautiful design, convincing environments, and depth of play. Many players will not (after playing games such as World of Warcraft) appreciate or enjoy some of the "back to the future" elements of gameplay such as the way death is handled and the manner in which the game demands grouping. However, I appreciate that these are game design decisions, and not just flaws of a poorly conceived or executed title, and I respect the designers for having a clear vision. Vanguard is not a shallow, easy, or immediately gratifying game, but I enjoy it a lot and I look forward to watching it develop and grow.